Scratch Stocks – Simple Tool for Simple Moldings

Making moldings is one of the tasks we do as woodworkers that seems to intimidate many who are new to hand work. Lets face it, it’s pretty darn easy to chuck up a router bit in a router table and make miles of the stuff. But when you do it by hand, it’s not always so straight forward. Complex molding planes that cut the desired shape make the job pretty easy. But there’s still the challenge of holding the plane at the proper spring angle while you walk along planing an 8′ length of stock. Hollows and rounds are a bit simpler in terms of sharpening and tuning up the tools, but they take a bit more finesse to get a consistent profile along a long length than a dedicated complex molder.

I have and use both of these options, but sometimes a particular piece just calls for something simpler. Such is the case with the joint stool I started building some time back. The upper aprons and lower stretchers both get a molding cut into their face. This can certainly be done with the right molding planes, but as I looked at the profiles I needed to cut to match the original, not having those particular profiles in a complex molder, I realized it would take a very small hollow and round pair and a snipe bill for the upper aprons and two different pair of hollows and rounds and a snipe bill for the lower stretchers. That’s seven planes. And while I have the planes I would have needed, I knew this was not likely how the moldings were done on the original back in 1650. No, I think they would have used an even simpler tool. Enter the lowly scratch stock.

If you’re just getting into hand work and you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed by all those molding planes, you can breathe easy. While you won’t be using a scratch stock to make that cornice on the Chippendale high chest you’ve had your eye on, you can make a fair variety of simpler decorative elements with nothing more than a scrap piece of wood and an old worn out hand saw or an extra card scraper.

Start with an old hand saw or spare card scraper. This is a real thick Clifton card scraper that I don’t like for scraping because it doesn’t flex much. This makes it good for scratch stock though. I’ve already cut a piece out of this one for another scratch stock. Use machinist’s layout dye, or alternatively, a permanent magic marker, to color the steel. Then draw the profile in with the point of an awl.
Use files to create the negative of the desired molding profile in the edge of the scraper stock. Lay this out carefully because you’re laying out and filing the negative of what you ultimately want to scrape into the wood. Here I just needed to use a small chainsaw file and a taper saw file.
Once the negative of the profile is filed into the scraper stock, cut it free from the larger piece. There are lots of ways you can do this. A hacksaw works, as does a cutoff wheel in a dremel tool. File the cut edges flat and smooth.
Cut off a section of wood from a scrap board. This was a piece of 1 x 2 red oak. I guess I cut it off about 3″ or so. I didn’t measure, it’s not important.
Cut the wood into an “L” shape. The wider section will create a fence to ride against the edge of the work piece and position the molding in the correct place.
Saw a kerf down the narrower section, stopping at the wide section. You want to saw right up to the wide section, but not into it. If necessary, this kerf can be started with a thin, fine toothed saw and widened with a thicker rip saw.
Drill a pilot hole for a screw completely through the block. Then widen the upper half to create a clearance hole on top. Countersink the upper clearance hole for a flat wood screw.
Hone the flat faces of the scraper on a stone. Don’t worry about the profiled edge. The filed surface is sufficient. Position the scraper in the saw kerf and secure it in place by pinching the kerf together with the wood screw. Here you can see how the extra 5/8″ of scraper helps to set the profile 5/8″ from the fence of the stock and keep it from sliding closer in use.
Now go scratch that molding. Will it take a bit longer than molding planes? Yes. But you’re scraping not planing, so just be patient and enjoy the work as the profile emerges from the wood right before your eyes. The cool thing is, you won’t even need to sand it. Once the profile is cut, it’s finish ready.

Now the million dollar question. Should you push a scratch stock or pull it?


A Semi-simple Steam Box

I’m making some chairs from an oak tree that was taken down in our back yard. These chairs require that some of the parts be steam bent. I’m starting with the simplest of the few chairs that I think I’ll be able to get out of this log, a post and rung rocker. The two long back posts need a gentle bend in the design I’m building. So I needed a steam box. I could have gone the simplest route and bought a PVC pipe and some end caps. That’s not my style though. I like wood.

The materials for the steam box are pretty simple and available at any home center. There are two six foot 1 x 4s and to six foot 1 x 6s. Plus some nails (mine are cut finish nails), a few plumbing parts and some hinges (I ended up using different hinges).
The parts to be steamed are supportd above the bottom of the box by some dowels so that the steam can circulate around them. These dowels were spaced about 6″ apart and placed about 1″ above the bottom of the box. Apparently either my 3/4″ auger is oversized (not likely) or this dowel was quite undersized (pretty typical of home center dowels).
The box is just nailed together. There is no joinery at all as there’s really no need. I used cut finish nails. The end cap is rabbeted on all four sides to provide some resistance to racking.
The end cap is, again, just nailed on with cut finish nails.
Time to provide an entrance for the steam. I bored a hole about 1-1/4″ or 1-1/2″ (don’t remember which it was) in diameter. This hole is centered on the bottom of the box.
Ovder the hole, I screwed a floor flange for iron pipe. This one is either a 3/4″ or 1″ floor flange, I don’t remember the exact size. Bigger is better as you want to fill the box with as much steam as possible. I used brass PEX connectors to attach the supply hose to the box.
I used brass PEX connectors to attach the supply hose to the box and kettle. The hose is standard heater hose, available in most home centers or auto part stores. It’s designed for high temp applications. The hose is just attached to the PEX connectors with hose clamps so it can be easily disassembled.
The door on the opposite end is made identically to the end cap. The only difference, obviously, is that it’s attached with hinges. I had to buy these hinges and bend them as the other ones I had didn’t work out. I also picked up a cheap pine knob. Looks nicer than the shiny handle in the first pic.
Time to add some legs to get the box up above the kettle. I had my apprentice cut the leg stock. Look at that perfect grip on the saw and the proper stance and alignment! She makes a dad so proud :). She cut right to the line too.
We screwed the legs that she cut to a 2 x 2 block of poplar and then attached them to the bottom of the box with the hinges from the first picture so that they could be folded up for storage. The front set of legs (closer to the door) is also 1″ shorter than the rear set so that the condensate inside the box will drain out rather than pool up inside the box.
The tea kettle is just an old one that we had laying around. The PEX connector was driven into the spout with a mallet and the hose attached with a hose clamp. The electric burner is a $20 version from the big box store. The kettle will steam this box for at least 2 hours on a single fill of water. There was still plenty of water left when I was done, so I’m not sure how long it will actually go for.
It works! These legs are shaved to about 1-1/2″ in diameter and they bent without any problem. Well, it took some muscle, but the ratchet straps pulled everything smoothly and the wood bent without any cracking. Granted this is a gentle bend, but it’s a good start.

So the next trial of the steam box will be some back bows and arm rails for a sack back Windsor chair (or two). While the stock for those parts is only on the order of 3/4″ thick or so, the bends are much more dramatic, so they’ll be a much better test of the steam box and the wood from this tree. I’m excited though. This is fun stuff!

More Riving, Almost Done

I did a bit more riving last Sunday and almost have the first 5′ log all split up into usable sections. Being a backyard tree, I did get quite a bit of waste splits as well as good splits. No big deal. The waste splits still make good firewood once they season.

Forest trees tend to grow straighter and have fewer lower limbs (a.k.a. knots). So if you are able to get your hands on a good forest tree, you will likely get more straight splitting usable lumber out of it (see most of the trees that Peter Follansbee uses) vs. a backyard tree. Still, some suburban and urban trees will yield to the wedge and froe. You might get lumber with a bit more twist and it may not split perfectly straight, but by riving a bit more oversized than you would with a perfect forest tree, you can still get a an awful lot of usable wood from the right backyard tree. And in many cases, you can get this lumber for free if you look around. Talk to your local tree services and I’ll bet you can find some.

Start with a fairly straight log. You can often read the bark to judge how straight the tree will split (though this is not always reliable).
Using a pair of steel wedges and a wooden glut or two, split the log in half. This is typically the hardest split. They get easier as they get smaller.
Split each log half equally in half again to yield quarters.
Then split the quarters into eights. You can stop here or split into sixteenths if you have a particularly large log. Usually eighths is enough. Always try to split the piece in half for the best chance of getting a good split.
Eighths split into project parts. The left pile has enough posts, rungs and slats to make three post & rung chiars. The right pile has parts for bows, arm rails and spindles for two sack back Windsor chairs. I still have two eighths left to split, possibly for rockers for the post and rung chairs, or maybe a carved box or two, depending on how well they split.

Who Splits Logs when it’s 90° Outside?

Um, yeah, me. There’s a reason that smart people like Peter Follansbee, Curtis Buchanan and Mike Dunbar do this stuff when there’s still a bit of snow on the ground. I went through three t-shirts, two bandanas, a gallon of ice water, two IPAs and four ibuprofen (hey Bob, how many Snickers bars would this be?), but I got this 5 foot red oak log split into eighths on Saturday before the skies opened up. This log is destined to become at least one, but hopefully several chairs.

I still have another five footer to go if anyone wants to come over and swing a sledge hammer for a few hours…anyone…anyone? At least the second one will be cut into shorter sections first. That one will be used for joint stool stock for a couple of reproductions we are going to work on in the joiner’s shop at Pennsbury Manor. If you can’t make it to NJ this week, you can come to Pennsbury on August 4th from 1-4 PM and help me split one there. Maybe it won’t be in the 90s by then :).

logs2 logs1